The Agency Business: Time-management software should adjust to firms' needs

When picking time-management systems, firms must take into account the issues that might arise, such as tailoring them to holding companies and steering clear of tracking too much.

When picking time-management systems, firms must take into account the issues that might arise, such as tailoring them to holding companies and steering clear of tracking too much.

One of the most frustrating things about time-management software for PR agencies is that the programs are rarely designed with PR agencies in mind. They start out as programs for businesses like engineering firms or for other professions, especially lawyering.

The package used should at least be adjustable for the kind of firm that's using it. Timeslips, for example, Best Software's program for small agencies, has a number of templates that employ terminology and preferences geared to, say, an engineering company, a law firm, or a PR agency.

Lou Capozzi, chairman and CEO of MS&L, says PR agencies that are part of a holding company face a particular challenge when it comes to time-management software. A few years ago, MS&L switched from a proprietary system to PeopleSoft. "I think the trend is that the big conglomerates are all employing one or another of the mega systems," he says.

But that switchover is not as easy as pulling a switch. "The problem is that these software packages were written for industrial companies, not service companies, to start out with," says Capozzi. "The second problem is that the client is the holding company, and the PR firms tend to be a relatively small percentage of the holding companies. So when they do modify their industrial, widget-based accounting systems to accommodate their new client, they accommodate the advertising agency," not the PR firm.

Time-management software also raise other miscellaneous issues.

Brian Saunders, founder and CEO of Edison's Attic, which makes Big Time for the midsize-agency market, says that often agencies, especially when first getting time-management software, try to track too much. "People want to go from zero to 60 in 10 seconds. The folks who fail are the ones who try to do too much. They track 16 different things for every time entry. They note every person they talk to."

He suggests starting with a "less is more" attitude and then getting more complicated if that matches business goals. Clients, dates, hours, and a quick reference to the type of work are a good beginning for what to record. Though many agencies use codes for the type of work done, Saunders opposes this. The entries "should be in plain English," he says. "Don't have people memorize a bunch of shorthand codes."

Another issue is whether the software allows for tracking changes made to inputted hours. Government work typically requires a time-tracking system to be certified; one concern there is that the program should include an "audit trail" to track such changes and who made them.

Another trend, a constant one for the industry, is to have the time-management software integrate with other programs. Mike Savory, senior product manager at Best Software, says Timeslips' newest version integrates with Outlook, so clients' contact information can be exchanged between the two. More interestingly, meetings that are scheduled on Outlook could be imported into Timeslips as billable entries.

Compatibility with billing, financial, and general-ledger systems is especially important. According to the Council of Public Relations Firms, 79% of members integrate their time software with their billing/finance systems.

Waggener Edstrom even has its time-management software hooked in with its intranet so that when employees who still haven't marked their hours log onto the internal website, it reminds them that they need to do so (and provides a link to the time sheet).

A major trend in time-management software is the allowance of time entry from remote locations. It is becoming common for these systems to allow this through a web interface. But the future movement is toward hand-held computers and wireless devices, such as Blackberries. This is more than just a convenience. Most experts say that the longer someone waits to enter time, the less accurate it will be - usually short-changing the agency.

Another issue, with agencies increasingly going global, is getting the same system in offices around the world - or at least systems that are compatible.

Edelman is about to go live with Hyperion - a financial statement consolidation tool. All its offices around the globe will feed into Hyperion in Chicago. "If you don't integrate your system you will fail," says Edelman CFO Meredith Mendes. "You can't run a company without knowing what goes in on the front and on the back end."

Second of three parts. Next week: What to keep in mind when shopping for time-management software and tracking profitability.

There is such a thing as free software

One maker of time-management software has an alluring price point: free. Well, as long as you don't have more than 10 timekeepers.

Journyx gives its program away to small shops. Its website (www.journyx.com) explains that it does so because it upsets competitors, it likes to help small businesses, and it knows that as small companies grow, they'll stay with Journyx.

Founder and CEO Curt Finch likens the free software offer to the open-source model. "It gets people's mind share wrapped around our technology instead of someone else's," he says.

On its website, Journyx sells its software for more timekeepers. For example, the 20-user bundle is $2,700 for the Windows version, $2,550 for Unix/Linux.

Journyx says it has nearly 70% of the web-based market for time-management software.

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